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FHT follow up: an idea for a mobile genealogical application
Posted on 18 March 2008 01:34 | Permalink

At the recent Family History Technology Workshop Paul Allen of World Vital Records gave the keynote over lunch. In his talk he suggested that we look to the newest technologies coming out today and think about what kind of genealogical applications will arise out of these platforms. Among others he mentioned the rise of social networks as platforms, as well as the incredible potential the mobile market will provide as it begins to really open up. (When, oh when will I be able to write Perl code for my phone???)

One thought that came to me tonight was an idea for a mobile application that could potentially aid in family history research by putting you in contact with those of your relatives whom you may not even realize are relatives. The application would work like this. Each user of the application would upload to their device some form of genetic information--the same kind of info you get back from the DNA tests currently used in family history research. As your mobile device comes into proximity of other mobile devices belonging to users who are also using this application, it would check the markers in your DNA with those of the mobile owners around you to find which, if any of the individuals you are physically close to most likely share a common ancestor, and how far back that ancestor would likely be. You would get an alert indicating that you were near someone with similar DNA markers.

The implications of such an app are both intriguing and spooky all at the same time. There are obviously privacy and other security issues related to going around with your personal DNA markers displayed like a virtual name badge. What kind of personal information (aside from being able to discern the likelihood of a common ancestor) is also available from such a DNA fingerprint?

What other family-history-centric apps will we see arising from these platforms? What will be the next platforms? What will be the next layer in the stack? One question Paul raised that has had me thinking is how do we use these technologies and platforms to engage the rising generation in family history? Are there ways we can harness these technologies so that the side-effects of everyday interaction with technology can provide beneficial information to family history research?

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Family history and technology: it's only getting better
Posted on 08 February 2008 01:57 | Permalink

Last year around this time I blogged about the Family History Technology workshop and Computerized Genealogy Conference held each year at BYU in March. This year, there's another course on the menu for the geek genealogist. The first FamilySearch Developers Conference will be held on the Wednesday preceding the FHT workshop. This is exciting stuff!

What's so exciting about it? Well, back in September of '05 I expressed my hope that APIs would be made available for the then emerging microfilm imaging and indexing effort of the Church, as well as the new Family Tree system. Fast forward to 2008. According to the FS DevCon website, the "FamilySearch Family Tree API has been released. Learn from the engineers and community developers that have created public libraries, tools, and products. Get the facts for the source on the soon-to-be released Record Search API." Here we are a few years later and it's all becoming a reality. Woohoo!

Back then "Web 2.0" was just emerging, and my head was ablaze with all the cool ways APIs, rich web interfaces, and collective intelligence could be used to further genealogical research. We've seen a lot during that time of the ways in which AJAXiness and collective intelligence / social networking (witness Geni, FamilyLink,, WeRelate and others) can be used for this work. But I think we've only scratched the surface of what is possible. I think we're on the cusp of a veritable explosion of what will be possible with the APIs the church is making available for the massive amounts of data they have. To me, these APIs are the 3rd leg on the stool. With the APIs in place, and the data accessible via programmatic means we'll be able to move to a new level of possibilities.

While this feels like a culmination of sorts, it's really only the beginning. What amazing things will the next decade yield in this field? What amazing things will the rising generation be able to do with all this data easily available to them? One only has to look at the amazing variety and usefulness of the tools that have cropped up around the Amazon, Google, Yahoo, and other APIs to get a feel for what might be possible when clever and talented individuals with an itch to scratch are given the means to access data using their favorite language. I can't wait to see what happens when we can plug the FamilySearch data into the growing mashup ecosystem.

At $60 for the day, the conference is a real deal, and BYU provides some excellent facilities for these events. I hope to get involved with whoever is interested in working on some Perl code to interface with the new APIs. I'd love to see a one-day hackathon sometime with a group of Perl folks to hammer out WWW::FamilySearch for CPAN. Anybody interested?

Some other blog entries of interest about all this:
Pat Eyler: FamilySearch Conference Announced
Andy Lester: Genealogy, web services and Perl
Renee Zamora provides a press release about the conference

Reader comments: 2

President Hinckley passes away
Posted on 28 January 2008 14:43 | Permalink

I found these words of President Hinckley at

"I would enjoy sitting in a rocker ... listening to soft music and contemplating the things of the universe ... But such activity offers no challenge and makes no contribution."

There is so much more I could be doing. We'll miss him.

Reader comments: 0

December is NaBoMoReMo - National Book of Mormon Reading Month
Posted on 27 November 2007 01:10 | Permalink

December is NaBoMoReMo - National Book of Mormon Reading Month. The challenge is to read the entire Book of Mormon during the month of December, and to blog or otherwise share your experiences in doing so with the rest of the blogosphere, and the world in general.

I plan to take the challenge. Ben Crowder's excellent Reader's Edition of the Book of Mormon will come in very handy for this sort of thing. It's a version of the Book of Mormon without the usual chapters and verses, and as such reads more like a novel.

The concept behind NaBoMoReMo is borrowed from NaNoWriMo, which is "all about the magical power of deadlines. Give someone a goal and a goal-minded community and miracles are bound to happen. Pies will be eaten at amazing rates. Alfalfa will be harvested like never before. And novels will be written in a month." And in this case, hopefully, faith will be strengthened, testimony will grow, and Christmas will be more about the the Savior, and less about the shopping and the stores.

- NaBoMoReMo website
- NaBoMoReMo blog
- Reading Schedule

Spread the word!

Reader comments: 1

Family History, Photos, Blogs, and Books
Posted on 13 November 2007 16:21 | Permalink

Each week my wife writes up a little narrative about what happened in our family during the preceeding week, which she sends this out to family and friends. The most recent edition of the "family newsletter" included details about our recent family trip to Moab for a storyteling job, and some rockhounding.

I got to thinking yesterday how nice it would be if there were some kind of tool that would allow us to write up these weekly narratives, attach photos and such, and blog-like, publish it (securely) to family and friends. Going one step further, it would be nice if at the end of each year we could then bind up all the weekly newsletters from the past year into a (acid-free, archival-quality) hardbound book whch we could give to each of our kids, and keep for posterity.

The key here is efficiency. Time is such a precious commodity these days, and anything that can minimize the effort to maintain a meaningful narrative of the events of our family is worth pursuing.

Are there tools out there that can provide an "end-to-end" experience in doing this? As I thought about it I could see combining Picasa + Blogger + Blurb. One problem I immediatey ran into with that combo was Picasa only allows you to attach 4 photos to a blog post (what's up with that???). Another potential problem would be the resolution of the photos when moving them to a book format. I assume Picasa resizes images apporiately when publishing them with Blogger, but the added resolution is a necessity to get a high-quality print job on paper. Is there a single tool out there that can do this?

Any suggestions? My guess is the tool or a combination of tools is out there, I just need to find it.

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The Compact Oxford English Dictionary
Posted on 04 October 2007 00:42 | Permalink

I wasn't always a computer geek. In fact, I spent some time in my early college years as a linguistics major. Language is fascinating to me, particularly etymology (the study of where words come from). I recall my linguistics professor often mentioning the Oxford Engish Dictionary as the place to go for word history. Once while in the library I took the chance to find it and was amazed to find not one large volume, but 20(!) which comprised the work.

For every word listed in the OED a complete history is provided, showing how the given word has been used from its very first known occurrence down to modern usage. It's an incredible resource for anybody interested in the history of the English language.

The dictionary is available in a variety of formats, from the full 20-volume set (plus additions) to online access via subscription, to CD-ROM versions.

Recently, via the Cool Tools Blog (an excellent addition to your feed reader, I might add) I came across the "Compact Oxford English Dictionary." This is a single volume work containing the entire text of the 20-volume set. How do they work this magic? By micrographic reduction, placing several pages of the OED on each leaf of this book. The other trick is a large form factor. At roughly 17 x 11 x 4 inches this is a large book (one Amazon reviewer reports it weighs in at 11 3/4 pounds). A reading glass is provided for those farsighted folks like me who need a little extra help with smaller text.

At somewhere between $200-$300 dollars, it's not exactly pocket change, but beats paying nearly $1000 for the 20-volume set (not to mention the new bookcase at Ikea to house them all). If, like me, you'll need to save a few pennies before acquiring your own copy, you can satisfy your thirst for linguistic history by subscribing to the OED Word a day feed.

Disclaimer: Yes, there are Amazon referral links in this post, though that wan't the motiviation for blogging about this book. The OED is simply a great resource, and I found this Compact Edition a fun and a bit more wallet-accessible way into the OED.

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1830s English and the Book of Mormon
Posted on 19 September 2007 00:25 | Permalink

While serving a mission for my church, some Elders in our district went to a Know Your Religion seminar in which the person presenting suggested that there was a lot you could learn about the Book of Mormon by consulting a dictionary that was published in the same time period as the Book of Mormon. Accordingly he was selling reprints of a dictionary that had been published around 1830, the year the Book of Mormon was first published.

I have found in my personal study of the scriptures that my experience with the scriptures is greatly enhanced by closely studying some of the words of the scriptures that are less-common in our modern language. By increasing my grasp of what such words mean, I get a better picture overall of the message of the scriptures, and can more readily apply those passages to my own life.

Recently the thought came to me that I should search Google Books for an 1830ish dictionary to help in my study. As usual, Google delivered, and I now have in my Google Books Library a copy of A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson, John Walker, and Robert S. Jameson published in 1828. Given that the book is well out of copyright, Google has the entire contents of the book available for browsing, or for downloading as a PDF.

As an example of what can be gleaned from such a tool, consider 1 Nephi 16:28, where Nephi tells us that the pointers in the Liahona (the compass-like object the Lord provided to Nephi's family to lead them in the wilderness) worked "according to the faith and diligence and heed which [they] did give unto them". If we compare the Liahona to the guidance of the Spirit, or the scriptures, or the words or the prophets, we see that such things can help to guide us through our own "wilderness" according to the "faith and diligence and heed" which we give them.

Looking up the word "heed" in the afore-mentioned dictionary, we find as possible meanings for the word "heed" to include "Care; attention; caution; fearful attention; suspicious watch; notice; observation; seriousness; staidness; regard; respectful notice." Each of these meanings can provide interesting insight into what it means to give "heed" to these sources of guidance.

Google Book Search really is an amazing tool, given the quantity of volumes available for search. The number of digitized copies of historical documents is growning on many fronts, not only at Google, but also in places like the Family History department of the LDS Church (head on over to FamilySearch Indexing to help out in that effort) where millions of microfilms are being digitized and indexed. I recently re-stumbled upon who have entered into an agreement with NARA to digitize materials from the National Archives. My father-in-law is the director for a Genealogical Library in Connecticut which will be partnering with the LDS Church to digitize portions of their collection. And the list will continue to grow. It's an exciting time to be alive.

Reader comments: 1

Google adds My Library feature to Book Search
Posted on 08 September 2007 01:12 | Permalink

Google has added a "My Library" feature to Google Book Search. From the Google Book Search Blog:

"With the launch of the My Library feature in Book Search, I can create my own customized library online, and quickly search my collection to figure out which book I'm looking for. Once it's created, I can share my library with my friends and see what's in their collections."

I've had a couple of tabs open in my browser to some old Mormon Science / Theology books for a while now just waiting for some time to peruse them (you'd think I could just add a bookmark, but no...then I'd never get back to them...strange brain I have) This will let me tuck them into my "library". You can import a list of ISBNs into your library, and each library has an RSS feed associated with it, so you can follow what others are adding to their personal libraries.

Not quite Library Thing, but useful nonetheless. I've found Google Book Search is a pretty good addition to the old genealogy tool belt.

Reader comments: 0

Utah Open Source Conference
Posted on 07 September 2007 23:55 | Permalink

Today I was able to attend some of the Utah Open Source Conference. Overall my impression of the conference was very positive. I think the organizers have done an excellent job for their first year. I won't be able to attend all of the conference, but I very much enjoyed the time I was there.

I gave a presentation in the afternoon on the Relational Model (slides from my presentation). It was sparsely attended, but seemed to go well. I was rather nervous going into the presentation, but once I got going things went smoothly, and I felt like I did a pretty good job. Looking at Phil Windley's slides I think I need to add more pictures to my slides.

Presenting was a good experience, and I think I'll try again next year, perhaps presenting on automating data centers with CFEngine, or Puppet.

Reader comments: 1

Wiki diagrammer (Steal this idea!)
Posted on 19 April 2007 14:15 | Permalink

Someone out there with more time than I have, please steal this idea! (Or, maybe the LazyWeb can point me to someone who already has.)

A number of wiki engines these days have made it easier than ever for anyone to add wiki content by using WYSIWIG editors when you click the "Edit Page" link. DekiWiki is one that comes to mind

I'd like to see that idea taken further. What if I want to include a diagram in a wiki page? Can someone make a Visio-like plugin for a wiki engine such that when I click "Edit Page", I get all the controls to whip up a nice network diagram? Clicking "Save" would generate an image that is subsequently displayed on the page, as well as a link to the SVG source for the diagram. A plugin for Mediawiki that allows this would be superb. Could we get Gliffy embedded into a wiki?

And why stop at diagrams, what about a photo-editor plugins, complete with links on each image included in a wiki, "Edit this photo." I know there are a buch of Web 2.0-ish online photo editor applications out there (like Pixenate). How about spreadsheet controls so I can embed a spreadsheet in a wiki page? I think JotSpot already has this sort of thing.

I've recently been using Google Spreadsheets to collaboratively edit a spreadsheet of product research with some of my co-workers. If you haven't tried this already, it's a paradigm-changing experience. Anybody who has been through the nastyness of passing around countless versions of spreadsheets and Word docs via email will appreciate the beauty of seeing near real-time updates to the shared spreadsheet by your co-workers as they find and add more info to the document.

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Daniel Hanks

I'm a system administrator working for Omniture

Interested in

digital archival
digital libraries
web applications
web infrastructure
distributed storage

among other things . . .


Pamela Hanks

is an excellent storyteller.

(She also happens to be my wife :-)

A storyteller makes a wonderful and unique addition to family, school, church or other group events. Schedule her for your next gathering.
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